Issue 64

On the Road Again

On the Road Again


Welcome to Copper #87!

Family business had me on a plane yet again, this time to Las Vegas---and believe me, it takes family to get me to Vegas in June. Daytime temps generally exceeded 100 degrees F, with single-digit humidity and that wonderful acrid dusty desert smell. I know plenty of people who love the place, but.... I thought Colorado was dry, but it's the Garden of Eden compared to Vegas.

Years ago, I visited Roy Hall's room at CES and complimented Roy on the room's scenic view. Roy waved dismissively at the picture window and said, "Las Vegas is a waste of a perfectly good desert."

Who am I to disagree?

What's up with our regulars? Dan Schwartz  begins the complicated tale of where he's been; Richard Murison regales us with the human history and grisly toll of Everest ; Jay Jay French tells us about the horrors of a music-free life during a renovation; Roy Hall does not enjoy a visit to Moscow; Anne E. Johnson’s Off the Charts offers some of Billy Joel's lesser-known cuts; Woody Woodward brings us Part 2 of the story of Django Reinhardt; Anne’s  Trading Eights features vocalist Dianne Reeves; and I muddle through that objective/subjective thing again in The Audio Cynic, and conclude the history of Empire (whew!) in Vintage Whine.

We conclude our excerpts from Michael Stuart Baskin's memoir363 Days in Vietnam: A Memoir of Howitzers, Hook-Ups, & Screw-Ups From My Tour of Duty 1968 to 1969, and thank Michael for the opportunity to share his story. continue with part 3 of my look at this year’s Munich show---and we ain't done yet!

Our friend B. Jan Montana takes us around THE Show in Long Beach---and it seems to have been a good time. Sorry to have missed it.

Copper #87 wraps up with Charles Rodrigues resting in an audio wayand an unusual Parting Shot from our friend Rich Isaacs.

Cheers, Leebs.

Miraculously, Best Buy Lives

Bill Leebens

Industry News has written many times about brick and mortar consumer electronics stores that have crashed,burned, and disappeared: Radio Shack, hh gregg, Circuit City—even Toys ‘R’ Us, once the 22nd-largest seller of consumer electronics products in the US. A few years ago. most in the industry would have predicted that Best Buy would be added to the list of CE retailers that perished, having failed to compete with Amazon.

They were all wrong. I was wrong.

When first offered in 1985, shares in Best Buy—the metamorphosis of Minneapolis hi-fi dealer Sound of Music—could be bought for 12 cents per share. As the chain grew, share value grew as well, reaching a peak of nearly $55/share in 2008. And then, as it did for so many businesses that year, the business crashed—and so did the share value, dipping down to about $20 by November, ’08.

Over the next two years, a slow climb brought shares back up to nearly $45, possibly aided by the closing of rival Circuit City in 2009. And then, again, the bottom fell out. By the end of 2012, shares had fallen below $12 (stock history can be seen here).

Why the ups and downs? This timeline from the Minneapolis Star-Tribune spells it out clearly; the squeaky-clean image of the company was blemished in 2011 when it became known that CEO Brian Dunn had engaged in, as they say in corp-speak, “inappropriate behavior” with a female employee. 2012 was a tumultuous year: in rapid succession, 50 stores were closed, laying off hundreds; Standard & Poors downrated the company’s credit; CEO Dunn resigned, with company Director George Mikan named as interim CEO. By the end of the year, Mikan had also resigned.

2013 wasn’t much better: an investigation showed that Founder/ Chairman Richard Schulze had neglected to apprise the full board of allegations against Dunn, and Schulze was forced to resign in June. By July, Schulze announced a takeover bid, assisted by other former officers of the company. In August, Hubert Joly, a veteran of the hospitality industry and officer of hotel owners the Carlson Companies, was named the new CEO of Best Buy.

Joly had no previous experience in retail or consumer electronics, but was known as an expert in corporate turnarounds. Many in retail and CE assumed that the choice of Joly would provide the final nails in the Best Buy coffin.

As said before: they were wrong, and I was wrong.

Joly’s first order of business was to meet with employees and then with Schulze. By the next spring, Schulze and Joly had reached detente, Schulze’s takeover plan was abandoned. Schulze remains as Chairman Emeritus of the company.

Joly abandoned the lavish offices and perks that had marked the C-level floor at the company, worked in stores, and revamped the corporate culture. In the years since his appointment, Joly has instituted price-matching policies that helped the company fight competition from Amazon; revamped the distribution system to make in-store and at-home deliveries far more efficient; leased store square footage to tech companies like Samsung, Microsoft, and Apple, slashing costs and further helping the company to compete successfully against Amazon; greatly expanded the size and reach of the Geek Squad service corps; and most-recently, initiated a class of in-home advisors who will go to the homes of customers and potential customers, advise them of possible tech solutions to their needs—and most surprisingly, may not sell the customers a thing.

Today, the company has been transformed from a big-box-pushing group of know-nothings to a company offering tech solutions, provided by highly-trained experts—from many companies, not just Best Buy.

It hasn’t all be roses: that $12 share price came shortly after Joly’s appointment, and there have been peaks and troughs since. For the most part, though, the trend has been upward— in both the stock price and the public’s view of the company.

And: miraculously, Best Buy lives. A remarkably-thorough recounting of the whole messy process can be found on Bloomberg, and it is instructive and fascinating reading.

, and it is instructive and fascinating reading.

Simply Vicious

Simply Vicious

Simply Vicious

Charles Rodrigues

Tubular Bells

Christian Hand

When I was a wee lad, back in the U.K., my Dad would, on occasion, sit me down in the living room and place his yellow-spongey-ear-foam’d Sennheiser headphones on my head, drop the needle on a record, and leave me to it. I always thought it was to simply share the gift of music with me but, as I grow older, I think it MAY also have been a REALLY good way to get me to shut up for an hour or so. On one such day in the mid 70’s he completed the ritual by placing the black disk on the ol’ Thorens deck and walking away as my ears filled with a sound unlike ANYTHING that I had known prior. Little did I suspect that pretty much the entire rest of the country had had a similar experience.

The record on that auspicious day was Tubular Bells by Mike Oldfield and it has been a favorite, and “Must Own”, of mine ever since. I have probably bought 30+ copies of this album for friends over the ensuing years. No musician should NOT know it. However, the story of this album is as convoluted and complicated as the music contained on it. An empire was built with the money from its sales and a man was broken by its impossibilities. A bit of a tragic tale, to be honest.

In his mid-teens a young musician by the name of Michael Oldfield modified the Bang & Olufsen 1/4″ tape-deck in his bedroom to allow him to use it like a traditional 4 track, and got to work recording the lattice-work of music that he heard in his head. Over the ensuing months he managed to commit almost all of it to tape and then sent it out to see if there would be anyone interested in releasing it. The reaction was a CRUSHING silence, even from Pink Floyd’s label.

As any musician of the time would have, Mike just decided to head into the studio with anyone he could find and make a life as a Studio Rat. It was during one such session at The Manor, the almost finished studio owned by one Richard Branson, that Mike mentioned to the blokes there that he had this “thing” that they might want to hear. They said that they did and a roadie working at the Manor drove him the hour back to London to pick up the tapes and they returned with them to the studio.

Tom Newman was a musician employed by Branson to help get The Manor up-and-running and was also a record producer always looking for the next project to work on. After Oldfield returned with the tapes and handed them to him, he promptly forgot about them entirely. He continued to forget about them until a few days later when Oldfield reminded him. To placate the young lad, upon getting home, Newman pressed play and listened to it on loop for the next 5 hours. He was blown away by what he heard. And then…NOTHING happened AGAIN.

Disconsolate, Oldfield was ready to move to Russia to become a State employed musician. Unbeknownst to him three of Branson’s employees Newman, Simon Heyworth, and Simon Draper, had finally convinced Branson to listen to the recordings and he had agreed to pay for the recordings to be finished at The Manor. He gave them a week. Instead of “finishing” Mike’s demoes it was agreed that they would RE-RECORD ALL OF IT! In a WEEK!

They rented over 30 instruments in preparation for the tracking days but it was as the techs were wheeling out all of the stuff used in a previous John Cale session that M.O. saw a set of tubular bells and asked if he could hold on to them for a bit. I consider this to be one of the most fortuitous pieces of synchronicity in all of recording history. Oh, by-the-way, did I mention that Mike Oldfield was 19 when he started said recordings? 19! Good grief.

Side One of the album had been entirely transferred from M.O.’s head into his notebooks using a  language of symbols and arrows that only he could possibly understand and decipher. It was with this innate understanding of the information that he proceeded to play every instrument for the entire album, bar the flutes, drums, and string bass, himself. Please think about that as you listen to the record. It is absolutely shocking to consider that a 19 year BOY accomplished all of it. Every instrument. In a WEEK!

However, FIRST they had to work out how to do it! Initially it was a total grind and nothing was working. It wasn’t until someone thought of creating a separate click track for EACH segment of music that things started to happen and, in the words of M.O., “from that point on, it got a little easier.” By the end of the week he had played over 2000 overdubs, utilizing almost all 30 instruments, and working so many hours in the studio that it wore the tape out.

As the week drew to a close time became of the essence and things were looking pretty rough by the conclusion as the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band were LITERALLY hanging-out waiting to get into the studio to start THEIR recording when it was decided that a rather drunk Viv Stanshal (The B.D.D.D.B.’s lead-singer) would intro each instrument as it appeared in the final half of Side 1. Little did he know that his dramatic introduction of “And…TUBULAR BELLS!” would give Oldfield the inspiration to name the album that instead of “Opus One”, his original title.

I told you the Cale bit of the tale was fortuitous! Richard Branson had planned on calling the record Breakfast In Bed, and the cover was to feature a photo of a boiled-egg with blood pouring out of it. Seriously. Only goes to show that Record Execs have NEVER known anything! The un-mixed recording was taken to a music conference in Europe to see if anyone would be interested in releasing it. Once again, the silence it received was CRUSHING.

One American exec WAS interested but, upon hearing that he would give them $20,000 if M.O. would just put some vocals on it, Oldfield stormed out of the studio, went to the wine-cellar, grabbed a bottle of Jameson’s, got royally pissed (Brit-slang for drunk) and returned to the studio to ad-lib the weird voice on Side 2 that came to be known as “The Piltdown Man”, complete with wolf howls. I remember being TERRIFIED of this bit upon my first hearing it that day in 5 Fairfields Crescent, London, NW9, and I’m not sure I don’t suffer a little PTSD to this day. Thanks Dad. The tubular bells that are heard on the album itself are a pair that was re-recorded OVER the prior ones because the engineer didn’t like the way that they sounded, a decision Oldfield regrets to this day.

Once the recording was completed  it took a team of 5 people, manning a 20 channel desk, running an Ampex 16 track tape-machine, a MONTH to mix the entire record. With each pass they had to MANUALLY pan, EQ, and add effects, in REAL TIME. There was no automation in those days. It’s a staggering accomplishment and the reason that, in my mind, Tubular Bells is the single greatest recording in music history. There are MANY other records that have challenged the technology of the day and gone on to become considered “Masterpieces”,—The Wall is a perfect example— but I don’t think that they can be considered in the same frame as Tubular Bells.

Feel free to disagree. This is my column.

When the record was finally finished, and mixed, Branson had no choice but to put it out himself and created Virgin Records for, pretty-much, that sole purpose. It sold 17 million copies world-wide and was the bedrock upon which the entire Virgin Empire was to be built. Sales in the U.K. were 2.5 million copies alone. There was a stat I read once that mentioned that, at its peak, 1 in 4 households in England owned a copy of Tubular Bells, but I fear that this is apocryphal.

[Christian breaks down Tubular Bells here, track-by-track—skip ahead to around 39:44, and enjoy!—Ed.]  

The cover is a representation of the tubular bells themselves. The reason the bell is bent is artistic license taken from the condition of the real bells used once M.O. had destroyed them with the huge hammer he grabbed from the Manor to play them for the recordings. I always wonder where they are now. I, for one, would LOVE to own that piece of music history. They probably got thrown away. Bastards. Little did they know.

While reading Branson’s autobiography Losing My Virginity (so friggin’ imaginative) I found a section dedicated to Oldfield and this record. Branson talks of the Oldielfd’s reticence to try and play the record live, in its entirety, and how he (Branson) convinced him to do a single show at The Royal Albert Hall with Queen Elizabeth in attendance. The story he tells is of the, almost, panic-attack level of anxiety that Mike was experiencing before going on-stage, and how it took them driving around London just prior to show time, and Branson promising to give M.O. the Bentley they were driving in, to finally get him into the theater and out in front of the crowd. Richard did confess, however, that he thinks that playing that show might have “broken” something in the young lad and that he doesn’t think that Mike Oldfield was ever the same again.

It’s a somewhat-sad denouement that over the course of his career—he is now in his mid 60’s— Oldfield continued to re-record Tubular Bells, each time trying to get closer to the perfect sound that he heard in his head, when all along I think he got it right on the first try. I always think of this record as his Great White Whale. Geniuses are, more times than not, complicated, troubled, people, who think NOTHING like the rest of us. Safe to say Mike Oldfield fits the description perfectly. He now lives on an island in the Bahamas and continues to put out music regularly, fully embracing the technology of the Internet for that purpose. His soundtrack to the movie “The Killing Fields” is gorgeous. Please check out the rest of his work, too.

Tubular Bells went on to win the 1975 Grammy for Best Instrumental Composition. It spent a staggering 280 weeks in the U.K. charts, and eventually reached the #1 spot dethroning Oldfield’s own Hergest Ridge album, the FOLLOW-UP to T.B.,  to gain the top spot. It is, of course, best known as the theme from the movie The Exorcist. One of the most perfect music placements in film history. My favorite version of the album is the beautiful “25th Anniversary Re-Master” from a few years back. It comes packaged in a fantastic “book” with this story and pictures of the characters and locations that helped make it a reality. That’s the one to own.

I will be forever grateful to my Old Man for placing those old Sennies on my head (he still owns them) and introducing a VERY young me to one of my favourite albums of all time.

Thanks Dad. A foundational moment.

Oh, and Mike Oldfield celebrated his 20th birthday 10 days before the album was released. Absolutely incredible.

Give it a listen. It is as mind-blowing now as it was on the day it was released, May 25th, 1973. You’ll not be disappointed. Side One is my favourite of the two sides.

But your results may vary. It’s THAT kind of record.

Enjoy. See you on the next one.



Orlando Gibbons

Orlando Gibbons

Orlando Gibbons

Anne E. Johnson

The rich, velveteen sound of the English classical tradition, exemplified in the 20th century by Ralph Vaughn Williams, has deep historical roots. One of the most significant and influential nodes in that root system is a composer who doesn’t get enough attention. Born in Oxford and trained at Cambridge, Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625) was considered one of England’s finest musicians in his day. He excelled equally at writing both sacred and secular music, and both vocal and instrumental. King James I and King Charles I each favored him with prime appointments. This guy was a very big deal.

In an impressive collaborative effort, three ensembles recently teamed up to celebrate Gibbons. In Chains of Gold (Signum Classics) is the first volume in a promising series called “The English Pre-Restoration Verse Anthem.” Pre-Restoration means before 1660, when the English monarchy was restored to power after decades of exile. A verse anthem is basically the English term for a motet, although it also tends to include passages of solo singing.

The forces on this exceptional album are the viol quintet Fretwork, the vocal and instrumental group Magdalena Consort, and the early brass-and-winds ensemble His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts (sic). Many of these musicians also performed together on the 2003 Orlando Gibbons: With a Merrie Noyse. This collective, which calls itself the Orlando Gibbons Project, and is under the direction of William Hunt. Hunt’s leadership, paired with some of early music’s most skilled practitioners, brings out the complex beauty of Gibbons’ craft.

The pieces performed here are “consort anthems,” so called because they use an ensemble of instrumentalists (traditionally viols) as accompaniment rather than just organ. Listen to the delicate, patient way that Magdalena Consort tenor Charles Daniels spins out the opening verse of “Behold, thou hast made my days,” a text about the brevity of life in comparison with the vastness of God’s creation. Fretworks accompanies this one, with phrasing that mirror’s the singer’s passionate declamation:


In “Great King of Gods,” the Majestys demonstrate how sensitively sackbuts (basically proto-trombones) and cornetts (not the same as a cornet, the term refers to an instrument made of a single piece of curved wood, with an ivory cup-shaped mouthpiece) can be played. Gibbons is at his contrapuntal finest as he layers instrumental lines against the voices. If you ever get a chance to hear this repertoire played live in a church, don’t miss it!


We’re in a bit of a lean period for early music recordings following the 1980s and ʼ90s heyday. This means that second-tier-famous names like Gibbons don’t get as frequent new recordings as they used to, making In Chains of Gold particularly valuable and welcome.

That’s not to say that there have been no other new Gibbons recordings in the past year or so – just not of vocal performances. Gibbons was among the first composers to devote equal energy to both instrumental and vocal music, and there’s been enthusiastic work done on the instrumental repertoire of late.

Many of his string works are available on the recent Ricercar release Gibbons: Fancies for the Viols featuring the ensemble L’Archéron, under the direction of François Joubert-Caillet. While the performances don’t have quite the intricate sculpting of Fretwork’s, this is high-quality playing and some great examples of “chamber music” from back when that term just meant “played in the house” as opposed to “played in church.” Here’s a six-voice fantasia:


Meanwhile, composer David Warin Solomons is keeping alive an authentic, age-old practice of creating instrumental music where there was none. Re-imaginings of madrigals and motets counted among the most common types of instrumental music in the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

Here’s how the process has always worked: First, an arranger hears an inspiring piece of vocal music. Take this breathtaking 2018 performance of Gibbon’s anthem “Drop Drop Slow Tears” by the Cambridge Chorale:


Then the arranger buys the written music (or picks up the whole score by ear if he can; or, these days, downloads the free Wiki score file) and composes an arrangement for his preferred instrumentation that preserves the original harmonies and polyphony as much as possible.

Here’s Solomons’ version of “Drop Drop Slow Tears” for wind quartet. Warning: It’s “played” with digital samples, not actual wind instruments. Solomons is simply putting out an example of what this piece could sound like if performers or teachers purchased his arrangement. That underlying entrepreneurial aspect has not changed since Gibbons’ time. Is it stealing? Yup, by today’s standards, if it were an arrangement of a protected work. Musical copyright was in its infancy in the 16th century, so you can do whatever you want with Gibbons’ tunes.


Gibbons has an appeal across genres these days, too. Electric jazz guitarist Noël Akchoté self-published Orlando Gibbons: Hymns & Anthems, a new album featuring his own arrangements. Here’s his take on the five-voice madrigal “Dainty Fine Bird”:


There’s another recent Gibbons project intended to encourage performance of this great music. Founded by tenor Matthew Curtis, the company Choral Tracks LLC provides digital rehearsal materials for choirs. Gibbon’s most famous work, the madrigal “The Silver Swan,” gets the Choral Tracks treatment here, with 15 different sound mixes to emphasize, mute, and rebalance the various parts.

It’s certainly not among the great recordings of “The Silver Swan” (try the classic King’s Singers version or John Rutter directing the Cambridge Singers), but that’s not its purpose. You won’t find a more helpful tool for learning how Gibbons constructed this short but complex piece. You can listen to (and sing along with) all 15 mixes for free on Spotify:

Obviously, I hope that more top-flight ensembles devote themselves to recording Gibbons in the near future. But until then, anything that keeps this music alive is a positive step.

What Will Be "Vintage" in 2068?

What Will Be "Vintage" in 2068?

What Will Be "Vintage" in 2068?

Bill Leebens

As I’ve discussed/ranted many times in this column, to me, “vintage audio” means, oh, 1968 and earlier. One hopes, much earlier. But I’m old.

If you look at any craigslist anywhere, you’ll see ads for “vintage audio” from the 1980s, 1990s, even around 2000. The stuff I see doesn’t say “vintage audio” to me; it says, “cheap plastic crap that I didn’t want then, much less now.”

I doubt if I’ll be poring over craigslist—or whatever replaces it—as a centenarian, but assuming I were still around, and looking at ads for “vintage audio” in 2068…what might I find? Possibly something like the impressive-looking mini-system shown above, currently available on Amazon for $40. Yes, I would classify it as lightweight, throwaway junk—but who knows? It may give its owners some pleasure.

The bigger question is, what kind of vintage audio gear will enthusiasts be looking for in 50 years? Will there be a revival of interest in some category we don’t expect—as there was a surge of interest in turntables and records, when most had dismissed them?

How about tuners? In 50 years I expect terrestrial radio to have pretty much vanished, so those complex, precisely-made devices will be little more than novelties, Ooh—feel the way that flywheel spins! That may be the great benchmark of what determines desirability, along with the colors of dial lights, indicators, and meters. Undoubtedly, there will still be some who obsess over the blue lights of McIntosh gear; I hate to think of an MR78 reduced to being nothing more than a massive nightlight—but it could happen.

As growing populations and power-grid overloads demand greater electrical efficiency, we’re likely going to see restrictions on what kind of devices can be sold, and used. Class-D is likely just the beginning as efficiency moves from being “a good thing,” to a legal requirement. Those giant Class-A amps? Vacuum tubes? Likely relegated to shelf space, gathering dust, unless one goes off-grid and generates their own power. Along those lines, as photovoltaic cells become more and more efficient—and yes, I assume we’ll get past the present attempts to go back to fossil fuels—who knows what we’ll see? Heck, solar-powered Class-A amps could heat homes, also!

I think it’s reasonable to assume that  in 2068, wireless connectivity will be the norm, and powered speakers incorporating amps, DACs, who knows what all, will dominate. The result might be nostalgia for separate components, and even wire. We may see collector-hoarders who accumulate speaker cables and power cords based upon their thickness, the snakiness of their covering, how brightly the connectors shine…. My cynical side says, “so—not much different from the present day,” but that’s a little harsh.

Continuing with speakers: the conversion-efficiency of moving coil loudspeakers could well be improved. By 2068, such things may be viewed as obsolete, and devoutly desired by collectors. Piezoelectric films or nanowhatever may make up the speakers of the future. And what about giant, multi-way horn systems that occupy whole floors of houses? As population density increases, houses will be rarer and more of a luxury, and the percentage of home-owners devoting the space they have to huge sound systems will diminish.

It’s entirely possible that audio in 2068 will look completely different from today’s gear, and may largely be invisible—I would expect systems integrated into the home to have taken  several steps forward by then. Voice control and gestural control may be passe’ at that point…what’s next? Thought control?  I would also bet that there will be several new storage formats by then; I would expect even CDs to be viewed with the sense of novelty and nostalgia with which vinyl newbies approach LPs.

During the 50 years I’ve been around audio, there have periodically been cries that everything was going away,that audio enthusiasts are all dying off. Somehow, the field persists; technology has changed in ways that couldn’t have been foreseen in 1968, and so has society. There may be  fewer old-school audiophiles around today, compared to decades ago—but the problem is that we are reluctant to recognize new and different ways of enjoying music. While complaining that audio show attendees are all fat old men, we refuse to see all the younger folk in the headphone pavilions and those exploring turntables for the first time.

Just as when, in high school, I approached my ’36 Philco console radio (purchased for $12, and by God, I wish I still had it) with a mixture of wonder and bemusement, I expect that there will always be audio archaeologists who admire the technology of earlier eras.

At least, I certainly hope so.

And now—a contest!

What current products do you think will be sought-after in 50 years? What changes do you think will occur to audio gear between now and then?

Let’s hear your thoughts! The best answers will receive a copy of the beautifully-produced 450-page German book, Who Is Who in High Fidelity. We only have a few copies—likely the only copies in the US. As a bonus, Paul McGowan will autograph the chapter on PS Audio. Don’t worry: text is in both German and English.

This book is really heavy, so unfortunately we must limit the prizes to US residents. Give it your best shot—and leave your ideas below, as comments!

"It's All About the Music"

Bill Leebens

When I encounter an audiophile or a show-exhibitor with a massive, megabuck system playing a tight playlist of only audiophile-approved tracks and they tell me, “it’s all about the music,” it is difficult to restrain myself from saying, “don’t bullshit a bullshitter.” In fact, I may >cough< have said that, maybe once or twice. Maybe.

I believe their statement about as much as I believed, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”

As I wrote recently, it is possible to enjoy music over some inexpensive pieces of gear, even a clock radio…just not all inexpensive pieces of gear. And while a massive Wall of Sound system might have been needed for the Dead to play to 100,000 people, seeing a quarter million worth of gear and six LPs makes me a little crazy. I have nothing against  big systems if there’s evidence that they are actually paired with a comparably-large music library. Michael Fremer may have a big-boy system, but he also has tens of thousands of well-played records (and somehow seems to know where every last record is, as witnessed by him happily leaping like a forest gnome to fetch the next delight). I’m happy to see gear being put to work—and worked hard.

In certain circles—just not here in the US, for the most part—a major sound system imbues status upon its owner. I’ve encountered wealthy owners who have carefully and scrupulously assembled major systems that were meticulously matched to the owner’s home,musical taste, and considerable collection of music. Good on them. I’ve also encountered folks who have said, “I’ve got a mil and I need three systems, one for each house—what should I buy?”

I admit to a twinge of envy when I encounter deep pockets like that, but there is also a cringeworthy aspect to their efforts: imagine gray-headed, overweight me suddenly showing up with a brand-new, bespoilered red Corvette and a 23-year-old girlfriend named Tiffini: ooghh. Just think of it as Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class come to resplendent, tacky, life.

Youth may be wasted on the young, but we geezers often attempt to recapture a piece of our youth by fulfilling our adolescent dreams, once we have the money, time, and space to do so. Whether that’s endearing, or desperate—I’ll leave for you to decide. I admit to succumbing to that syndrome in some ways. Just not Tiffini.

Writer Pamela Druckerman notes that although there were references to middle-age discontent even as far back as Dante’s Divine Comedy, the term “Mid Life Crisis” was coined by Canadian  Psychoanalyst Elliott Jaques in a 1957 paper presented before the British Psycho-Analytical Society in London.  The extended lifespans and increased leisure time allied to modern society (until recently, anyway) allowed a certain prolonged self-examination that earlier times may not have. Some might say “self-indulgence,” but others view the phenomenon as both inevitable and positive, an opportunity to re-align one’s priorities.

…and yet, and yet: such assurances might, in themselves, be attempts to qualm the existential angst of a midlife crisis. Fine. Be that way.

But if you spend a million bucks on a stereo, you’d better play more than Diana Krall and “Keith Don’t Go.” Or prepare to be mocked. Mercilessly.

And BTW: Tiffini only loves you for your money.

Dan Fogelberg

Anne E. Johnson

There was a time when Dan Fogelberg’s albums sold like crazy, but a lot of people made fun of his sappy sound [me, amongst them—sorry! —Ed.]. The fact is, he churned out a lot of albums over thirty years, but had only a few lasting hits. And there’s far more to the Illinois native’s output than the cheesy love lyrics and breathy voice that made him famous.

Admittedly, his first album, Home Free (1972), contains a large helping of Seventies synth syrup, but there is one track that hints at a more interesting songwriter. “Wysteria” goes light on the synthesizers and lets simple acoustic fingerpicking bring out some unusual chord progressions. Fogelberg was a skilled guitarist, as he shows in the overdubbed solo at 1:00. His lyrics about a troubled but strong woman avoid sentimentality while his voice cracks slightly with a melancholy that seems genuine.


In his next two albums, Souvenirs (1974) and Captured Angel (1975), Fogelberg moved more solidly toward a folk sound. There’s also a touch of rock showing up on some tracks, for example “The Last Nail,” from Captured Angel. It starts out acoustic, but that gentle sound gets nudged out in the third verse by electric guitar and drums (longtime Fogelberg backer Russ Kunkel, although most of the instruments on this album are played by Fogelberg himself).

Also worth noting here is a common characteristic of the best Fogelberg lyrics, moments of very specific and unusual imagery that bring the world of the song into vivid color: “We walked together through the gardens and graves…”


Although the pendulum swung back to overly sweet synth sounds and surface-level love songs for Nether Lands (1977), the following album gave Fogelberg more street cred in the neighborhood of rock and roll. Phoenix, which went double-platinum in 1979, amps up the intensity. “Face the Fire” has all the characteristics of a hard rock anthem, except that it’s about protesting nuclear and other popular energy sources in favor of solar:


Despite such heavy tracks, Fogelberg doesn’t abandon his previous styles as he gains new ones. Prime example: there was a time when you couldn’t go to a wedding without hearing his saccharine-oozing ballad “Longer,” which also comes from the Phoenix album.

Among the handful of Fogelberg songs that still get any airplay are “The Same Auld Lang Syne” and “Leader of the Band,” the two songs that really don’t fit with the rest of his 1981 two-disc set, Innocent Age. Overall, Innocent Age is a song cycle in the classical sense – short songs somehow related to each other; in this case, I would say the theme is man’s relationship with nature and the cosmos, not to mention the meaning of life. Those two hit songs are the only ones that deal with more specifically personal topics.

On display in the other 15 cuts are Fogelberg’s philosophical mind, expressed in some wise and articulate poetry. In “Stolen Moments,” he pithily captures a truth about how humans interact: “Waiting out the worst, we keep the best inside us / in hopes our hearts can hide us, in hopes our tears don’t show.” The music is catchy old-school rock, with some interesting shapes to the phrases, but not so complicated that they pull attention from the lyrics:


The Innocent Age cycle ends with “Ghosts,” one of Fogelberg’s finest songs. The track features singing that’s noteworthy for its range, control, and expressiveness as part of an artful arrangement (produced by Fogelberg with Marty Lewis) that blooms from lone piano to full strings and chorus, then dwindles again to eerie quiet. Dealing with the sense of loss we humans inevitably experience as time goes by and things change, the lyrics include some of that distinctive Fogelberg imagery: “Along the walls in shadowed rafters / Moving like a thought through haunted atmospheres…”


Country music was a big influence on Fogelberg; he honed his chops as a session musician in Tennessee as a young man. The album High Country Snows (1985) is dedicated to that genre. And he tangles with the best: “Shallow Rivers” is a knee-slapper featuring masters like Herb Peterson on banjo, Charlie McCoy on harmonica, David Grisman on mandolin, and Jim Buchanan on fiddle. Fogelberg seems as comfortable writing and playing Opry-style tunes as he does with folk and rock.


With Afro-Cuban inspired percussion and R&B-style back-up brass, “Holy Road” is an example of the world of musical influence Fogelberg welcomed into the sessions for his 1993 album River of Souls. (I also recommend the joyous tribute to the music of Africa in “Serengeti Moon.”) The pleasing tenor voice of Fogelberg’s youth is shot, but he takes advantage of the hoarseness to push out a rugged, soulful performance.


The final Fogelberg album is Love in Time. This was released by his widow in 2009, two years after his death from cancer at 56. It comprises the title song (a charity single he’d written for her as a Valentine’s gift in 2005) plus 11 unpublished songs. “Come to the Harbor” is a fitting farewell for us. The song pays tribute to Fogelberg’s early love of both country and Celtic music. His physical weakness may show in the wobble of his voice, but his spirit is still flying free with the lilting melody.


Dan Fogelberg was very much an artist of his time: an intelligent, thoughtful, gentle wordsmith with wide-ranging taste that he was determined to explore. His like is not welcome on the charts anymore, and much of his music has already fallen into obscurity. There’s a movement to change that, though. In September 2017, the Tennessee Performing Arts Center presented the world premiere of Part of the Plan, a jukebox musical with a score made up entirely of Fogelberg songs.

Will it ever come to Broadway and bring this songwriter back into the limelight? Probably not. But it’s good to know that someone cares enough to try.

[Thanks to Anne for making me take another look at Fogelberg’s catalog. His work was nowhere near as precious as I recall, and a number of his songs are pretty compelling. For an interesting alternate take on his music, check out the album, A Tribute to Dan Fogelberg, available on Tidal and Amazon. featuring remarkable performances from Donna Summer and Jimmy  Buffett, of all people, along with many others. I’d pass on Michael McDonald and Zac Brown—but then, I usually do.–-Ed.]

Winds From the North

Lawrence Schenbeck

Oh Bernhard Henrik Crusell (1775–1838), where have you been all my life? I was a clarinet major for three semesters. I avidly collected recordings: Reginald Kell, Harold Wright, Richard Stoltzman, Sabine Meyer, more recently Michael Collins, Martin Fröst, Lorenzo Coppola. Yet somehow not once did I encounter Crusell. My Spelman colleague Joe Jennings, the Dean of Atlanta Jazz Musicians, played very fine classical clarinet, and he told me about Crusell. I must have dismissed that as typical clarinetist one-upmanship; I must have figured the man (Bernhard, not Joe) was a Weber wannabe.

But when Michael Collins’ new Chandos recording of the three Crusell clarinet concertos and Introduction et air suédois op. 12 came out (CHSA 5187; SACD or download), I thought, well, why not? I knew that Collins plays Brahms and Mozart really well; it turns out he plays Crusell like an angel. A frisky, exuberant angel. Listen:

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Crusell may not have been the Beethoven of the Clarinet, but he knew exactly how to work it so that sheer joy came out the other end. In our first clip, you heard a flippant little rondo theme that takes advantage of the instrument’s essential character and capabilities, which include very wide pitch and dynamic ranges. Here and elsewhere, Crusell shapes scale passages so they “accelerate”: especially in ascending passaggi, he often begins with 4-to-a-beat, slips into 5-to-a-beat, then 6-to-a-beat, popping off an unexpectedly high note at the end.

The slow movements are also lovely:

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What the heck. Let’s hear one more clip:

00:00 / 01:35

Crusell was Finnish. Who knew? Everyone in Clarinet Universe, apparently. I guess this is the sort of reward awaiting those of us blessed with short attention spans: in our declining years, we will still be making delightful discoveries.

This column focuses on “Winds from the North,” and more Nordic wind music is coming up. But first, a word from Jean Sibelius, founding spirit of modern Finnish music, whose creative breath still animates so much sound made north of the Baltic. In our previous column, Reijo Kiilunen of Ondine Records mentioned an award-winning recent release, and that recording makes a good introduction, or refresher course, or advanced seminar in Sibelius. Sibelius: Tapiola/En Saga/Eight Songs (ODE 1289-5) includes the master’s last orchestral tone poem, Tapiola (1926) and his first, En Saga (1892; rev. 1902). That work’s title evokes tales of ancestral gods and heroes, a reference reflecting the composer’s ardent embrace of Finnish nationalism and borne out by the primordial character of its themes. En Saga is structured in a rugged sonata form, its final section ending not in noisy triumph but in a measured, lyrical retreat from the battle scenes depicted earlier. Structurally, what started out as a full-throated thematic recapitulation is cut off by a cymbal crash, and the themes, like the old myths themselves, dissolve into scraps of memory:

00:00 / 03:35

Christoffer Sundqvist was the clarinetist heard toward the end; Hannu Lintu conducted the Finnish Radio SO in a performance that wisely combines drama and textural clarity.

Of Tapiola less need be said, because it can’t be said: neither the musical structure nor its literary roots bend toward the plainspoken. At his publisher’s request, Sibelius wrote a few lines of poetry to describe the music, especially to those who had never experienced what Mr. Kiilunen calls the “magic of the Finnish forest”:

In Pohjola stand the thick, dark forests,
Ancient, mysterious, dreaming savage dreams;
The Forest God’s eerie dwellings are there
and half-glimpsed spirits, and the voices of twilight.

No gods or heroes actually appear. No humans, either. The music develops organically out of a few simple, related motives. Sibelius said that “Tapiola is written in strict sonata form,” but because it’s essentially monothematic, you may experience it as a set of variations, metamorphic, perhaps, in the manner of developing variation. In any case the music refuses to disclose whatever Sibelius discovered in the woods. As music, however—as an emotionally communicative process—Tapiola is far less inscrutable, and thus well worth hearing. There’s no point in excerpting it:


The album rounds off with a tasting menu of Sibelius songs, eight of the more than 100 he wrote, newly orchestrated in 2015 by Aulis Sallinen for Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter. Especially if you have not encountered Sibelius as a song composer, you will find these of interest. Sallinen’s orchestrations are often more daring and colorful than those of his predecessors. (A long tradition of Sibelius settings by other musicians exists in Finland.) Listen to the poignant horn lines—followed by other distinctive timbres—in “Under strandens granar,” below. (For complete Swedish and English texts, click here and then select the “English” box to the right of the song title. On the webpage you can also hear an excerpt of the song sung to its original piano accompaniment.)


Having heard these eight orchestral songs, you may hanker for more; attractive options abound. Over the years I’ve enjoyed soprano Soile Isokoski’s Luonnotar/Orchestral Songs with Leif Segerstam and the Helsinki PO (ODE 1080-5; SACD and download). With Isokoski, you’ll go from tasting menu to seven-course banquet: more bleak love ballads; more wild, mysterious, unforgiving nature scenes; more memento mori.  Enjoy! (Seriously, Isokoski’s lustrous operatic presentations of this material offer a strong contrast to von Otter’s intimacy, and you may prefer that.)

I also recommend In the Stream of Life: Songs by Sibelius from bass-baritone Gerald Finley and the Bergen PO, Gardner conducting (Chandos CHSA 5178). The chief attractions here are seven songs newly orchestrated by Einojuhani Rautavaara. He chose well: you will hear some of Sibelius’s best music here, utilizing a wider range of human feeling—and musical style, everything from near-Bartók to proto-Britten—than you might have associated with this composer. Part of it is Finley’s uncanny ability to characterize. I don’t mean merely his way of capturing the specific psychology of a song, its moment. More than that, he seems to become a character who embodies that moment. As with his portrayals (no other word will do) of Shostakovich, Schubert, or Britten, he is able to communicate the core of a text as if he were the person caught up in it.

Rautavaara provided colorful, occasionally radical new symphonic clothing for these songs. And Edward Gardner is utterly supportive, both in the song accompaniments and in the album’s substantial makeweights, the tone poems Pohjola’s Daughter and The Oceanides. From the complete playlist below, try “Demanten på marssnön” or “Näcken” or “I natten.” (Complete texts here.)


Beautifully recorded, of course. Not just Finley, but also von Otter and Isokoski; what a feast!

Speaking of “beautifully recorded,” that’s become the default description for anything emanating from Morten Lindberg’s 2L. With Woven Brass (2L 143-SABD; or try this), for example, the recorded sound is . . . perfect.

So let’s talk about the performers: they’re perfect too. I mean the Oslo Philharmonic Brass, five members of the Oslo PO including trumpeter Jonas Haltia, who got the ball rolling back in 2003 when he played at Bjørn Morten Christophersen’s brother’s wedding. Christophersen wrote a surprise piece for the ceremony, and Haltia liked it so much he recorded it as Sentimental Pebbles. It forms the peaceful midpoint of the new album, which leads off with this composer’s The Wind Blows Where It Desires (for three trumpets) and ends with Woven Brass Quintet. Although it’s all brass-music-and-nothing-but, Christophersen introduces maximum variety in the textures and effects; also, nothing goes on too long. Of particular interest is a group of shorter compositions written over a fifteen-year period using the same thematic materials. It’s good! For these performers—all of them orchestra professionals, whose daily task it is to play faultlessly and precisely in an ensemble—it’s more than good. It’s . . . perfect.

The whole album can be streamed on YouTube, but as with other YouTube dubs, you won’t really hear it that way. You’ll have to get the Blu-ray/SACD combo or else the best possible download available. Nevertheless, check some tracks out below. Chaconne, tr. 13, is a solo-trumpet extravaganza. Ohrwurmer Fantasie (“Earworm Fantasy”) is also catchy. (You’ll have to click on the embedded album title below to get to YouTube, where the “Show More” option will let you see timing cues for the whole collection.)


Still with us? Next time, a conversation with Bert van der Wolf.


Roy Hall

Unsurprisingly, music has played a central role in my life. Music can be emotional, erotic, transcendent, hypnotic and, in some cases, downright terrible.


Many years ago while visiting Glasgow from the US, my friend Ivor from Linn Products suggested we drive to Edinburgh to hear some classical music. It was festival time and, in my opinion, the best time to visit this beautiful—although snobby and boring—town. Ivor had scored tickets to hear Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at Usher Hall—named after “the father of Scotch Whisky” Andrew Usher, famous for perfecting the art of blending. As a lover of single malt, I am not impressed with blended whisky, but as an audiophile, I am impressed with Usher Hall. The acoustics are amazing—the concert hall is curved in the interior and whether by desire or default every performer sounds wonderful there. The Scottish National Orchestra was playing that night, and I counted over 100 musicians, along with the Edinburgh Festival Chorus and another unnamed choir. There must have been well over 250 performers on stage. The sound was breathtaking, but in the fourth movement, towards the end, when “Ode to Joy” climaxed, the force of all these instruments and singers hit me and my whole body shuddered. A cold sweat trickled down my back and the sheer beauty of the music transported me to I know not where.  When it was over, I was spent.


I can’t remember which orchestra played Mahler’s fifth symphony this particular afternoon but it didn’t really matter; it could have been a middle school band for all I knew. It sounded glorious.

I was at The Palau de la Musica Catalana in Barcelona—one of the strangest and most beautiful concert halls I have ever seen. It was built in a style known as Catalan Modernism, which inspired the birth of the Catalan Independence movement over 100 years ago that is still very much active today. With columns covered in vines and flowers carved out of stone, the building is designed to replicate the outdoors, indoors. The whole feel of the place is organic. The main concert hall has a stained glass ceiling and windows all around, allowing for daytime concerts in natural light. During renovations in the 1980s, someone came up with the idea to reupholster the seats with a material that has the same sound-absorbing qualities as a human being. That someone is a genius: no matter how full or empty the hall is, the acoustic signature remains the same. Listening to classical music in such a space, surrounded by nature—nature that is both actual and mimicked, both organic and stone—is truly remarkable.


When in 2012 I heard that Leonard Cohen, then 78, was coming to Madison Square Garden, I knew I had to see him. I sprung for ridiculously expensive floor seats, which turned out to be worth every penny.

On coming to America in 1970, to woo and subsequently marry my love, I brought two gifts: a poster of Alphonse Mucha, and a book of Leonard Cohen’s poems. Cohen’s first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, had become very popular in the UK in the late sixties, and I was a fan. A girl I knew in Glasgow had fallen so in love with his words and music that she scrimped and saved every penny for a whole year just so she could fly to Montreal to meet him. On arrival, she found out that he had just left Montreal for his home in Hydra, Greece.

I always loved his early music, but somehow he fell off my radar for a long time as I married, had children and generally lived life. The thought of seeing him perform decades later brought me back to my younger and more fanciful self.

Onstage was this 78-year-old man who moved like a 30 year-old and sung like an oracle. His back-up singers, the Webb sisters whose alto voices were perfect counterpoint to his growling voice, accompanied him. “His voice was dark and brooding; his music was grim and romantic; but his physical aspect was light-footed and warmly appreciative,” wrote my wife later, on Facebook. “And the fact that everyone wore fedoras as he did added some whimsy.”

His singing was so passionate and his words so stimulating, that I left the concert in awe of his artistry.


Whenever I find myself in Northern California I make a point of stopping at The Russian River Brewing Company, which makes one of the best beers I have ever tasted. It’s called Pliny the Elder, it’s a double IPA, and it just tastes wonderful. As famous as the beer and the brewery have become, the pub itself is rather plain and unadorned. The food is okay and the crowd is local. Often there is live music.

One evening, while enjoying more than one pint of Pliny, a band started to play. They were horrible. Amateurish, out of sync with each other and too loud, their caterwauling was quickly destroying my tranquility. After a few songs they (thankfully) stopped for a break. A young woman came by collecting money for the band. When she approached me I took out a wad of bills and said,

“How much to tell the band to stop playing?”

She looked at me aghast and replied. “That’s a terrible thing to say.”

I looked her in the eye and responded, “It’s a terrible band.”


When I was thirteen in Glasgow I joined a Zionist youth movement called Habonim. Most of the Jewish lefties in town sent their kids there. So I, a fat, obnoxious bar -mitzvah boy, reluctantly joined a club that would permanently alter my life. For one, it was there that I learned to play guitar so I could woo women (a highly effective move). Also there someone introduced me to the music of the magnificent Tom Lehrer, whose sardonic humor has had a lasting effect on me.

As most of members of the group were political (socialist and Zionist), they were a highly articulate bunch. Resultantly my language skills improved dramatically. My politics also skewed even more left. The raison d’etre of the group was emigration to kibbutzim in in the fledgling state of Israel. While it was basically a Jewish group, it did attract a certain percentage of non-Jews (One of them, Frank, moved to the Golan Heights overlooking the Sea of Galilee and has lived there for over forty years).

As the group was always pursuing culture we would often go to concerts. This I didn’t want to do, but as it was a group activity, I relented and went along. My move was to look at the program guide to count the number of movements in a piece, so I could tut-tut whenever someone clapped too soon. This time we went to hear The Scottish National Orchestra, but something unexpected happened. While listening to Ravel’s Bolero, a second snare drum joined in seemingly out of nowhere, adding an exciting new energy to the rhythm of the piece. It was so powerful that it carried me off to paradise. My heart raced. I experienced my first, non-sexual climax.


“Would you like to come tonight and meet the Beatles?”

It was 1963 and my school friend Brian, whose father was the manager of the Odeon Theater in Glasgow, invited me.

“I’ve met them once before,” Brian added, to amplify his point. “They’re very nice guys.”

By this time, the Beatles were already really famous at home and often did the circuits playing in towns across the UK. This was before they came to the US and were discovered on the Ed Sullivan show.

Much as I loved them, I was an awkward teenager and felt embarrassed by the prospect of meeting them. So I stupidly declined the offer.

The next day I asked him about the performance.

He said, “It was good but you could hardly hear them as most of the audience were young girls who screamed all the time.” And then he added, “After the show, the whole theater stank of piss.”

To this day, I still wish I’d gone.

So a Drummer Walks Into a Bar....

Jay Jay French

A little light summer diversion:

-What is the difference between a drummer and a pepperoni pizza?

A pepperoni pizza can feed a family of four.


-What do throw a bass player who’s drowning?

His amplifier.


-What is the difference between a lead singer and a terrorist?

You can negotiate with a terrorist.


-Why do guitar players put drumsticks on the dashboard of their cars?

So they can park in handicap spaces.


-How does a lead singer change a light bulb?

He holds the bulb in one hand and waits for the world to revolve around him.


-Why do drummers’ cars have poor gas mileage?

Because the Domino’s Pizza delivery sign on the car roof isn’t very aerodynamic.


-How do you stop a lead guitarist from playing?

Put sheet music in front of him.


-Why do drummers always knock on your front door?

Because they don’t know when to come in.


-How do you know a drummers drum platform is level?

Because the drool coming out of his mouth is even on both sides.




A guitar player walks up to his lead singer and says:

“Hey man, when we do “Stairway to Heaven” tonight, the first verse is in the key of “E’. The second verse is is going up a half step then, after the guitar break we will drop a full step on the last verse.”

The lead singer looks perplexed and says to the guitar player,  “What asshole would modulate and screw up a song like that?’

“That’s exactly what you did last night!” responds the guitar player….


More coming in Pt. 2

Goodnight, Irene

Richard Murison

I do enjoy a Single Malt scotch … the good stuff.  I mean the really good stuff.  The stuff that’s eye-wateringly expensive.  Consequently, even though I do have a selection of perhaps a dozen really good Single Malts, I only treat myself very rarely.

I grew up in Glasgow, in a poor family, and my exposure to Scotch Whisky was not one which I look back upon with any great affection.  While my own father was just an occasional drinker, his brothers and sisters all … how shall I put it … made notable contributions to the profitability of the alcoholic beverages industry.  As did most of the populace of that great city.  So while we only really had whisky in the house to serve to guests, it was invariably the cheapest stuff money could buy.  And when, as inevitably happens, I reached an age when I became interested in tasting it, I discovered that it is an utterly revolting substance with no redeeming features whatsoever.

For most of my life nothing happened to change that viewpoint, until, for my 40th birthday, my brother bought me a bottle of Laphraoig Single Malt Scotch Whisky.  For those of you who are not whisky connoisseurs, this is probably the single most in-your-face single malt on the market, and it will either spark a real interest in the drink, or will put you off for life.  In my case it was the former.  It got me over the hump to the point where I became interested in sampling other single malt scotches, while still absolutely detesting Famous Grouse, Haig, Bells, Teachers, and their ilk.

Thus it was, in about 1996, I went on a business trip to the Oxfordshire countryside with my friend Richard, where we stayed in an upscale country inn … which I think shall remain anonymous.  Now, Richard is a man who has never met a barman he hasn’t immediately befriended.  So, by our last night there, the two of them were on first name terms.  We had pre-dinner drinks in the bar that night, followed by a sumptuous meal in the restaurant, and then back to the bar for a nightcap.  Normally, I would bow out at that point and retire to my room, but Richard had established that the bar owner had assembled an impressive specialty collection of single malt scotches, and he suggested that we might like to try one or two.  It seemed like a good idea …

In England, bars have a set closing time and so the window between the end of our supper and the closing of the bar would afford me time to nurse perhaps one carefully-selected expensive scotch.  By then, Richard and I were the only ones in the bar, so we sat on our bar stools and chatted with the barman.  Before I knew what had happened, my one carefully-selected scotch became two.  And when closing time came along … well, we paid it no notice.  The theme of the session became an appreciation of the individual characters of various single malt scotches.  Richard and I and the barman, it seemed, found that we were able to talk on this one subject at increasingly great length.

At this point, I should mention the niceties of drinking in the bar of an English country inn.  When you order a round of drinks, you order one for yourself, one for your companion, and one for the barman.  Normally, the barman demurs from accepting the drink, and just pockets the price as a tip.  But on this occasion the barman joined us with his own glass of single malt.  So we kept going, Richard and I taking turns to stand rounds, one for each of us and one for the barman … the amount each time being added to our unseen tab.  We sampled a great many different and relatively rare single malts that night.

The whole thing was going so swimmingly, that at one point the barman announced that he had a Fender Stratocaster, and would we like to play it?  And of course we did.  So off he went, and returned with a beaten up deep-blue Strat.  No amplifier … just the guitar.  We ordered another round of single malts and the barman played something for us on the unamplified instrument … I have no idea what it was, but we evidently expressed our unreserved enthusiasm.  So then it was Richard’s turn.  Now, Richard is a mean keyboard player, and his specialty is honky-tonk piano … but he doesn’t play the guitar.  Nonetheless, he picked it up, thought for a moment, and announced that he could play “Smoke On The Water”.  Which he actually did.  Not well, it must be said, but a commendable attempt.  Then it was on to me.  Despite my protests, I was obliged to play something.  So I announced that I would play a rendition of “Goodnight Irene”.

At this point I must make a brief detour.  Back in 1978 I was living in Paignton, in the so-called English Riviera.  I went with my friend Kevin to a country pub that had a reputation for live music.  In the pub that night was a guitar duo who played in the corner surrounded by a small but enthusiastic audience.  We went over and joined them, and were soon part of the fun.  It was noisy, the beer was flowing, and in particular more of it was flowing in my direction than I was used to.  As the evening came to an end, there was time for one last song.  For reasons that still elude me, the band asked me if I wanted to join them for their last number.  Now, propped up against the wall behind them was a bass guitar, and I knew my way around a bass well enough to be able to make something work, so I said sure, why not.

Except that they didn’t give me the bass.  Nope, I was handed an acoustic guitar, while one of the two band members took the bass.  I was informed that we were going to play “Goodnight Irene”.  So, good news, we’re playing a song I know.  But bad news, I can’t play a guitar to save my life.  What am I to do?…  Brainwave!  There is an empty coke bottle on the table, so I slip it over the index finger on my left hand.  I will play slide guitar.  How hard can that be?

Well, the song starts, and I figure I need to be joining in, so I start to play away.  But unfortunately, the other instruments are amplified, both the guys are singing, the (tiny) audience is cheering loudly, and I cannot hear a damn sound that my slide guitar is making.  I am progressively playing louder, straining over the instrument to get my ear as close to it as I can, and I’m pretty sure I have the guitar hero screwed-up face going full on.  But still I can’t hear a freakin’ thing.  And moreoever, I don’t even know what I’m trying to play!

Well, the song eventually finishes, and I’m looking to get out of there as quickly as possible with my dignity as intact as I can manage it.  But no, everybody is crowding around me, slapping me on my back, telling me how awesome I was, asking me what band I played for, and was I on any LPs that they might know?  The band even asked if I would play with them again.  I just got out as quick as I could.  To this day, I haven’t the faintest clue what on earth came out of that guitar that night.  There must be a handful of retired geezers in Paignton who still think they saw Jeff Beck back in the day, jamming in their local pub.

So back to 1996 Oxfordshire.  And once again I am tasked with playing “Goodnight Irene” on a guitar, in a pub, after a skinful of booze.  Remembering the Paignton episode, I was inspired to grab a handy shot glass to slide the Strat.  To be absolutely honest, I don’t actually remember how it played out, except to say that it did, and that everybody seemed happy enough.  So we ordered another couple of rounds of single malt.  I’m a career 2–for–2 on drunken guitar with “Goodnight Irene”.

At this point the barman announces that the owner has a special single malt that he only ever serves to special friends.  You can’t find this stuff in the stores.  Apparently he buys it in person from the distillery.  Did we want to try some?  Damn right we did!  I remember clearly that it was a Tomatin, and yes it was very, very good indeed.  It is only very recently that I ever saw another one, and to my surprise it wasn’t unusually expensive.

But anyway, all good things must come to an end.  We had consumed, between the three of us, a truly prodigious quantity of seriously expensive scotch, and had committed sacrilege on an old Fender Stratocaster that surely deserved better.  I do remember the time … it was 3:40am, and we had to be leaving at 9:00 to catch our flights home.  We bid our newfound friend the barman a good night, and staggered off up to our rooms.

In the morning, Richard and I met over breakfast, appropriately hung over.

How much did we drink last night?

I totally lost count.  An awful lot.

It’s going to cost us an absolute fortune!

You do realize, there’s no way we are going to be able to claim any of it on our expenses.

Yeah, I know.  My wife’s going to kill me.

We checked out separately, and in the cab to Heathrow we compared notes.

I see they put everything on your room, then.  My bar bill was only £19.

Richard looked at me askance.

No.  Mine was £19 as well! 

Our hangovers dissipated somewhat instantaneously.  At Heathrow, we raised one more toast to Richard’s pal, the barman.  Cheers, mate!  Loud and prolonged!

Marienplatz in the Rain

Marienplatz in the Rain

Marienplatz in the Rain

Bill Leebens